Edinburgh Film Festival: Van Diemen’s Land, Outrage, Humpday, Sin Nombre reviews

Daniel's latest update from Edinburgh also includes reviews of Fish Tank and Le Donk. But we couldn't fit them in the title. Bah

Sorry with the lack of updates over the past couple of days, guys – it’s been, ahem, frantic. The mood here is really in full swing, with filmmakers, critics and assorted media folk hanging around the delegate centre and Filmhouse bar for increasingly crowded banter about the festival so far. And this is what I’ve been checking out over the past few days…

Van Diemen’s Land The trailer to Jonathon auf der Heide’s debut is a thing of haunting beauty, ending with a beautifully composed shot of a young man’s face in an extreme close-up. We zoom out and there stands a man, ready to bring an axe to his head… which he does. It’s a brilliant teaser and most likely lead to a sold out screening on Thursday night, but the glacial drama has probably confounded as many people as it impressed – it really wasn’t what I, and a lot of other viewers, expected to see.

In 1822, petty criminal Alexander Pearce (Oscar Redding) and a group of fellow offenders escaped from a penal colony, only to have their fates decided in “Van Diemen’s Land” (now Tasmania). With little supplies and no game to hunt, it all becomes a matter of who’s eating who.

After a fairly rollicking beginning, the film’s pace slowly grinds down, allowing a real sense of unease to build – but there’s little tension, probably because the film holds its characters at arms length. With nobody to really identify with, the focus falls on Pearce and just how far he’ll go to survive, which is all very interesting, but which takes a while to come into focus, what with Redding being part of an ensemble.

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Heide will definitely go places with this striking debut, but if you get a chance to check out Van Deimen’s Land, don’t walk in with an idea of what it’ll be like. Because you’re gonna be proved wrong, which is a discomforting experience. (More opinion piece than review, sorry, but I needed to get this down.)

Outrage In Kirby Dick’s follow-up to This Film Is Not Yet Rated, controversial activist/blogger Michael Rogers offers a simple reasoning behind outing closeted right-leaning politicos: “Everyone loves a good outing.” And true though that may be, is it acceptable that activists like Rogers force people out of the closet, not knowing just how serious the repercussions may be? But if a closeted politician votes frequently against important LGBT issues (e.g. protection against hate crime, gay adoption), is it well and truly fair game?

Outrage gives us not only both sides of the coin, but a number of things to truly ponder: is there really a ‘conspiracy’ amongst news outlets to bury LGBT stories, especially involving politicians? Why are there less Democratic politicians in the closet? And how well-known is it that a lot of incredibly important staffers (including John McCain’s chief of staff, who Rogers uncovered) holding up the Senate’s day-to-day are gay?

This incredibly involving documentary allows plenty of debate-friendly material in its 80-minute running time and miraculously never forgets that even though these politicians are in the closet (the main framing device follows the is-he-or-isn’t-he Senator Larry Craig), there are everyday lives to be upheld, romantic relationships prone to possible ruin, and the possibility that you’ll be branded a traitor by both the gay community and your party. Dick’s film lives up to its title, but never sacrifices its humanity in allowing anger as a driving force.

Sin Nombre Acclaimed short film maker Cary Joji Fukunaga’s debut feature is a lean beast: short, sharp and incredibly to-the-point, and the kind of film that actually deserves every bit of praise it receives.

Sin Nombre is at once a road movie (following the plight of Central American illegal immigrants entering the States), a crime movie (El Casper – played by charismatic first-timer Edgar Flores – wakes up to the harsh realities of gang life as the prepubescent Smiley – Kristian Ferrer – is introduced to them) and a tragic romance (El Casper’s not exactly star-crossed meeting with Sayra, played by Paulina Gaitan), with each element grounded entirely in our world due to staggering attention todetail.

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In Sin Nombre, the state of this tough world the characters inhabit is revealed through a series of eye-catching images: a dog chewing down on the raw flesh of something, train tracks littered with sleeping immigrants, women cooking outside, swiftly chatting. It’s exciting, truly visual storytelling and, really, I can’t actually find anything to nitpick from it (just yet). Fukunaga’s film is the real deal – involving, passionate, dangerous and even heart wrenching. Catch it if you can.

Humpday Too dry and almost certainly too honest to find a widespread mainstream audience, but in the case Lynn Shelton’s comedy got to that point, it would probably (and happily) kill off the usage of the term ‘bromance’ for all eternity.

Married and with the possibility of a child in the future with his wife (Alycia Delmore), Ben (Mark Duplass, who also makes a great little turn in Away We Go) finds his comfortable life shaken up by the rearrival of friend Andrew (Joshua Leonard, constantly discovering new depths of character throughout).

At a party, the two friends are informed about amateur porn film fest Humpfest and drunkenly vow to have sex on camera, because – Ben argues – two heterosexual males having sex would push the boundaries of art to a new level. Whether or not the act is followed up on is not something I would want to spoil for you, possible viewer, but it defies expectations, much like Humpday itself.

The plot brings to mind numerous mainstream US comedies – Zack And Miri Make A Porno and You Me And Dupree, to name a couple – but takes the comedy to a far more uncomfortable place, allowing these truly flawed characters to make questionable decisions and say questionable things in a way that’s far truer than in, say, a film from the Apatow camp.

If there are any problems with Humpday, it’s that the film very nearly becomes a character piece revolving around Max at various times, rather than a thorough exploration of the unusual triangle at play here. Shelton’s film also shares the sense, much like Away We Go, that the journey – both in-film and watching-film – is much more important than the destination, which is disappointingly and verbally literal. However, Humpday is surprising and, seeing how I haven’t stressed it enough, VERY FUNNY.

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Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee Talking of the literal, Shane Meadows’ newie Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee takes it to a whole new level in its third act as Donk (Paddy Considine) talks frankly about everything he’s done wrong, a while after the audience noticed what a fool he can be. You’ve seen this happen before in films: I call it ‘third act syndrome’, and it’s one of many times that Meadows’ film feels over-ordinary or over-familiar.

Le Donk is a faux-rockumentary about Donk, an ageing roadie who tries to get his friend, a rapper called Scor-zay-zee, to play a gig with the Arctic Monkeys, but complications follow.

While diverting enough, the film feels piecemeal and isn’t quite as funny as it thinks it is – scene by scene, the film lives or dies by how strong the improv is, and when it doesn’t work, it’s a shame. It’s a minor work from Meadows – not without its charms, but never really something that grabs the viewer. (PS. This was the first press screening I’ve been to when people applauded wildly at the end, proving that critics LOVE Shane Meadows.)

Fish TankWhere critics loved Shane Meadows yesterday, the audience at last night’s UK premiere of Fish Tank were practically in raptures over Andrea Arnold and – wouldn’t you believe it – the praise was deserved.

The director’s follow-up to breakout hit Red Road walks a fairly similar path – a haunted female protagonist (Katie Jarvis), council estate setting, long tracking shots that never wilfully disturb the action, lapses into obsession for the characters, really hard-to-watch sex scenes – but is different enough to feel like a revelation again.

The film is funny where Red Road wasn’t, carries a cautious optimism and is helped by a brilliant (and totally natural) soundtrack. Arnold does let her film come close to melodrama in her final act – but not to the extent of A Boy Called Dad, for example – and is maybe a touch too literal with her visual metaphors, particularly the film’s last image of a balloon soaring to the skies.

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Flaws aside, I wouldn’t want to give too much away about the film, so let’s stick to this – a young girl’s life is changed forever by the arrival of her mum’s boyfriend (Michael Fassbender, who I will happily watch in anything) – and it’s out in September, so go see it.

Today, the dive into Lars von Trier’s notorious Antichrist, Pomegranates And Myrrh, starring Hiam Abbass, and fashion documentary The September Issue. If I’m lucky, of course, as most screenings (I’m happy to say) have been selling out like crazy. Sadly, this means I won’t be at Darren Aronofsky’s in-depth interview tonight, but I’ll see if somebody could chip in a thought or two in tomorrow’s report.

If you haven’t been following me on Twitter, hit me up at twitter.com/sitartattoo and feel free to chat with me if you’re kicking about Edinburgh and see me at the Filmhouse. Just promise to buy me lunch. And away we go, week two is on!